The value of intransigence in Paris fairyland

This morning a Facebook alert welcomed me to Paris, four weeks to the day since my arrival.

I've easily engaged with the fairyland version of Paris that the tourists come to see. I have come to see that as well.

Paris market venue Place of the Innocents

But on Saturday, I walked past the shopfront of the Parti Socialiste and was reminded that the main reality is something else. The rough sleepers and other disadvantaged people visible on the streets are part of a society increasingly divided into haves and have nots. Just like Australia.

I can't understand much about French politics when I watch the news on TV, as I imagine the French scratch their heads when they hear about the possible fall of Australia's government because some of its members are dual citizens of another country.

Sign in the window of Parti Socialiste Paris

But I did get a sense of it when my vendor put me in touch with a young Ukrainian-Russian immigrant who was passionate about politics. I enjoyed the conversations we had when we visited bars on two occasions before he returned to his family in a village near Lyon.

In our discussions, we discovered that we shared a lot of common ground. We bemoaned the fact that nations across Europe - and also Russia - were becoming increasingly divided because their governents were catering more for entrenched elites than the good of the whole.

From the Louvre - Louis Lopold Boilly 1761-1845 People Entering to See a Free Show at the Ambigu-Comique Theatre
But I didn't like what I heard when I asked him who he supported in this year's French election and he said Marine Le Pen.

When I spent my first weekend in Lille, I admired my Australian friend for choosing an immigrant neighbourhood to buy an apartment for his part-time residence in France, even though I did not feel safe walking the streets.

He could have opted for something smaller in a more salubrious part of Paris. Like me. But I assume he was following the principles of the Catholic workers movement that he has been involved in and is the subject of his academic study.

Wall in Rue Foyatier Monmartre

My contact with reality has more to do with getting connected to the utilities and services that will allow me to live here part-time. On Friday I walked 40 minutes to the nearest shop of the majority state owned electricity company EDF. But they were closed, having had Thursday and Friday added to Wednesday's All Saints Day public holiday to make a five day long weekend.

I was consoled when it reminded me of then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld's 'old Europe' insult when France refused to sign up for the Coalition of the Willing to invade Iraq in 2003. It was a sign that America had not completely exported its 'can do' culture to France.

Be Loud Be Proud wall art Paris

I think that, despite the frustrations, there is something to like about intransigence that weakens productivity but upholds the rights and conditions of the ordinary people whose efforts achieve it.

Aung San Suu Kyi commodification hides nasty reality

In the news today is the decision of Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi to cancel her scheduled trip to the United Nations General Assembly.

The explanation is that she's having to deal with the crisis that has forced about 400,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh. Obviously she also wants to avoid being called to account for her failure to protect the Rohingya from what the UN's top human rights official Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein has described as 'a textbook example of ethnic cleansing'.

Aung San Suu Kyi

For some time she has faced criticism for her silence on the increasingly violent oppression of the Rohingya. As friends of mine became impatient with her during the course of the past year, my instinct was not to judge.

I told myself that she's a politician not a saint, and her continued leadership of the country depends upon her willingness to act according to the wishes and prejudices of the country's Buddhist majority, however odious they may seem to us. Her masters are the people of Myanmar - who democratically elected her - not the former colonial powers who gave moral support to her elevation to the leadership.

Yesterday my view was well articulated by commentators Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens on their ABC radio podcast The Minefield. Aly said:

'The Aung San Suu Kyi who was sold to the world, the crusader for human rights... was a creation of western human rights subcultures, of the culture of celebrity that surrounds a political prisoner.'

But in the end their guest - the Australian Catholic University's 'bitterly bitterly disappointed' Catherine Renshaw - was more convincing in maintaining that a rhetorical gesture from Suu Kyi in support of the Rohingya would 'have incredible power'.

Instead, Renshaw said, Suu Kyi's rhetoric is working in service of the ethnic cleansing. The 'disinformation' put out by her Department of Information about the Rohingya burning their own villages is 'so reminiscent of the oppression and the state apparatus of fear and silencing that characterised SLORC, the regime that kept her under house arrest for 18 years'.

The time is coming for international powers to act to avoid a proper genocide as happened in Rwanda two decades ago. Back then they dithered until it was too late. This time it's likely there will also be procrastination. But worse. Back in the 90s there was a consensus of moral leadership among western powers. But now that nationalism has taken root in so many countries, there's little support for action from powers beyond Germany and a handful of other European countries.


Link: podcast

The 7150 nuns who declared Trumpcare a moral outrage

Yesterday a friend sent me a Washington Post opinion piece about 7150 'socially minded nuns' declaring Trumpcare a moral outrage.

The article was written by E.J. Dionne, who's well known to Australians because he's often interviewed on the ABC's Radio National.

The 7150 nuns who fought against Trumpcare - from the Washington Post

He praised the three Republican senators who thwarted Trump's plan to deprive millions of Americans of health coverage. But also mentioned the nuns' much less publicised intervention, which labelled the Senate GOP's core proposal 'the most harmful legislation for American families in our lifetimes'.

The nuns cited Pope Francis' insistence that 'health is not a consumer good, but a universal right, so access to health services cannot be a privilege'.

Dionne's point was not to argue that the nuns influenced the outcome, but that most people are not aware of how wrong religious stereotypes can be.

'This is important because religion and the political standing of believers are badly harmed by the reality that so many Americans associate faith exclusively with the conservative movement. Large numbers of young people are abandoning organised religion (and particularly Christianity) altogether. A key reason: They see it as deeply hostile to causes they embrace, notably the rights of gays and lesbians.'

It's not widely realised that some of the strongest arguments for marriage equality can be found in religious teaching about social justice. As Dionne points out, Pope Francis is insistent that the Church be associated with justice and mercy rather than cultural warfare.

I think that it can be argued that the Australian Catholic hierarchy's opposition to marriage equality is a hangover from the cultural warfare of the previous popes and that the position of the bishops is essentially out of step with the present pope.

Calls to rein in ABC and SBS - from The Australian

I believe that this and many other debates are wrongly characterised as being between secular and religious interests. Rather it's entrenched interests (such as big business) against ordinary people who rely on human rights promotion for their basic survival.

That's why the Murdoch press waged a successful campaign to discredit and remove the head of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs. Yesterday the issue they chose to give voice to was the call from commercial media chiefs to reign in the public service broadcasters ABC and SBS, which take human rights reporting seriously.

It's regrettable that a surprising number of people continue to believe that religious interests line up behind the conservative establishment against the so-called socialists of the left, who are thought to be godless.

The Catholic Bishops feed that perception when they demonise the Greens, usually for opposing their own institutional interests such as Catholic education. Even taking into account the Greens' positions on issues such as voluntary euthanasia, I would suggest that the Greens are far more in line with the teaching of Pope Francis and the Catholic Church than the conservative parties that most people instinctively link to religious positions.


Links: Dionne ABC/SBS

The rudeness contagion

In a few weeks I will celebrate my fifth anniversary of not owning a car. One thing I don't miss is rude drivers.

Sometimes I'd be driving on a narrow country road at what I considered a safe speed. Impatient drivers would come up behind me and flash their lights aggressively.

I had two reactions. I might meet rudeness with rudeness and slow down to annoy the other driver. Or I would just pull over when I could and let them pass.

Cover of I Cant Believe You Just Said That The truth about why people are SO rude by Danny Wallace

Rudeness is a contagion. You need to go out of your way to short circuit it or it will eventually destroy your relationships and spoil your quality of life.

If you've experienced or witnessed rudeness, you're more likely to be rude yourself. According to British author and comedian Danny Glover, 'rudeness gets into your brain, it makes you less creative, less able to cope with situations'.

Last week I listened to Glover on a podcast speaking about his new book on what he calls the 'new rudeness' - I Can't Believe You Just Said That: The truth about why people are SO rude.

Are you rude

It is a serious issue at the moment because the most powerful man in the world has successfully made a virtue out of rudeness. He's setting a tone that other leaders including our own are following. It's not just everywhere in the Murdoch press, it's right through the policies of our Federal Government.

Glover says: 'Stupid people think yes I can be rude. Because that guy's being refreshing. He's being politically incorrect. He's saying whatever he wants. If he can do it, I can.'

He addresses the trend to put down political correctness.

'It's not something to be frowned upon. It's a system developed to protect people. People in a vulnerable situation, minorities, from not having people in positions of power run their mouth off and do them down and make them victims.'

Comedian Danny Wallace

He says it goes hand with people who disparage so-called do gooders.

He describes the positive community spirit that caused Britons to rally around victims of recent acts of terror in the UK.

'What would you rather have? Do nothings? Do badders?'


Links: podcast book

Rudyard Kipling and the crimes of Britain's inglorious empire

Yesterday I drove with my sister to the southern Kent coastal city of Folkstone, where she had a work commitment. I remember Folkstone as the entry point on my first visit to England in 1993 after taking the ferry from France.

With ferry traffic having quickly declined after the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994, Folkstone ceased to be a significant port. The locals have been trying to regenerate the city as an arts hub, but it was Sunday morning and there was little going on as I walked through its slowly expanding Creative Quarter.

Folkstones Creative Quarter

We drove west along the coast through Romney Marsh, a sparsely populated wetland area which was formerly known as a smuggler's paradise. This took us into East Sussex and the historic towns of Rye and Winchelsea, being directed by our GPS along quite a number of narrow country roads framed by beautiful thick canopies of green vegetation.

The most memorable of these, at least for its name, was Dumb Woman's Lane. I looked it up afterwards and - as expected - the naming has nothing to do with diminishing women. The legendary dumb woman was in fact mute, with the possibility that her tongue was cut out by smugglers she witnessed in order to prevent her from reporting their actions.

Dumb Womans Lane

Our next destination was the small village of Burwash, which I knew was close to the former family home of a friend from Sydney. A further two miles down the road was Bateman's, Rudyard Kipling's home from 1902 until his death in 1936. It is now a National Trust property and we enjoyed the rest of the surprisingly sunny afternoon looking at the house and its interiors and walking in the large garden.

My friend told me that his family's home - an iron master's residence - was built with stone from the same quarry as Kipling's. Knowing him, I don't think he meant that as a claim to fame. In my eyes, it would be the opposite, for Kipling is one of those figures that I love to dislike.

20170521_152242_HDR

I find it easy enough to be seduced by his genius for phrase making. But I'm much more mindful of his role as a triumphant champion of British colonialism, particularly in his birthplace India.

Earlier this year I'd been shocked when I listened to an interview that touched on some of the details of how the Britain trashed India's economy and cruelly exploited its people for its own economic and political advantage. It was with the Indian writer and politican Shashi Tharoor, who was promoting his new book Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India.

Kiplings writing desk

Elsewhere Tharoor summarises his opinion of Kipling: 'Fine words strung together in praise of the morally indefensible'. This is a variation on George Orwell's criticism - 'He dealt largely in platitudes, and since we live in a world of platitudes, much of what he said sticks' - which we see echoed in today's politics.


Links: Creative Dumb Batemans Inglorious Tharoor Orwell

Australia's migrant clampdown and religious fundamentalism

Frequently at dinner parties, I look around and realise that I am the only Australian born resident at the table. It's a good feeling.

When I travel elsewhere in Australia - as I did at Easter - I notice that the population is much more 'white' than I'm used to.

I'm always pleased to arrive home in inner city Sydney, where the foreign born population is far in excess of Sydney's average of 39 per cent. Sydney has Australia's largest percentage of migrants.

Postwar Migrants to Australia

I felt depressed this week when the Prime Minister announced a clampdown on immigration to appease and secure political support from One Nation and other right-wing voters. I know that the changes are largely cosmetic because it would be too damaging to our economy if they were significant in real terms. But that is no excuse.

It was about messaging and it was very rude. He said: 'Membership of the Australian family is a privilege and should be afforded to those who support our values, respect our laws and want to work hard'.

It's as if most migrants don't do these things already.

For me, the greater privilege is having my own values and cultural practices informed and enhanced by the presence of migrants in my life. It is my education.

Those Australians who are hostile to migrants and the pattern of migration in recent years share many of the characteristics of religious fundamentalism, which thrives on willful ignorance.

This week I read an excellent article linking religious and secular fundamentalism. It was written by the anthropologist and Marist priest Gerald Arbuckle in The Good Oil, the online publication of the Good Samaritan Sisters.

What I found most disturbing is his demonstration that there is no effective conversation or dialogue to be had with fundamentalists.

Gerald Arbuckle - Fundamentalism A Threatening Global Reality

'Because fundamentalism is at depth an emotional reaction to the disorienting experience of change, fundamentalists are not open to rational discussion. Here in Australia there is a political fundamentalist movement to preserve the "pure, orthodox Australian culture" from the "endangering ways of foreigners", particularly Muslims. It matters little to adherents that such a culture has never existed.'

Indeed the Anzac Legend, which features prominently in the now more rigorous citizenship test, was confected for political purposes, largely in the Howard era after 2001.

Because much of this new fundamentalism is recent and superficial, my hope is that it will disappear as quickly as it arrived, even if the motivation is self-interest. The prime minister knows it and hopefully he can lead Australians to the realisation that the enviable standard of living Australians enjoy is a result of migration.

 

False intelligence on Assad alleged chemical attack

There were a few reactions to what I wrote yesterday about my dream for a 'mass movement of peace'.

One friend who worked in aid and development in Africa wrote: 'I confess to liking the idea of pacifism, but being very happy to have an AK47 in my room when the Lord's Resistance Army were close by - and [I was] willing to use it'.

Another argued for a just war: 'I fully support Hiroshima/Nagasaki [because] I'm convinced by the scholarly research that the number of lives likely saved by reason of the two bombings way exceeds the lives lost and the other consequences'.

The key to this is that it was justified by the scholarly research. That's not what was used to support the US missile attack on the Syrian air base last week.

Idlib Assad alleged chemical attack

In that case it was information about the Idlib chemical weapons attacks passed on by the White Helmets humanitarian group, which has made it clear it wants to see Assad gone.

Prominent US journalist Max Blumenthal wrote in AlterNet last year that the White Helmets were 'created by Western governments and popularised by a top PR firm' and that they are 'saving civilians while lobbying for airstrikes'.

If that's true, we cannot rule out the possibility that the Russians are correct when they claim that the Idlib attack was a false propaganda event staged by the White Helmets.

The former diplomat Tony Kevin wrote on the Australian Institute of International Affairs website on Monday that 'well placed observers' say there was 'zero US intelligence linking Assad to the alleged chemical attack in Idlib and Trump’s decision to attack the Syrian air base was taken entirely on the basis of the White Helmets' audiovisual material'.

Another friend who wrote to me yesterday - Justin Glyn - has an article in Eureka Street titled 'No easy judgment in Syrian chemicals attack'. He provides a long list of reasons to doubt US claims about the attack, which may even have not involved chemicals. 'The pictures released show the rescuers apparently unharmed... If it was a sarin attack, the rescuers would be as dead as their victims'.

Yet US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insists it was 'chemical weapons' and says 'there is no doubt in our minds that ... [Assad is] responsible for this attack'.

This could be the kind of false intelligence that led the US and the 'Coalition of the Willing' to blunder into the Iraq invasion in 2003 that has arguably precipitated most of the trouble we have in the Middle East today. We all remember the 'mobile [chemical] weapons laboratory' that was used to justify the invasion and was later found not to exist. Now we could have a war against Russia based on false intelligence.

 

A Trump strike on North Korea

Yesterday I was with the travel agent collecting my e-ticket for travel to Europe in two weeks from now. I'm flying Korean Air, with an overnight stop in Seoul.

Curious to see his response, I showed him the 'Trump poised to strike N Korea' headline that I'd just noticed on my phone app. I asked him to tell me what happens to my flight if Trump does strike North Korea. He was understandably evasive.

Trump poised to strike North Korea Headline

The truth is that I'm not really worried about the flight being cancelled or even coming to grief. What will be will be. Even in these circumstances, it's probably true that I'm more likely to die in a road accident some other time than in a plane falling from the sky or missiles hitting Seoul on 26 or 27 April.

But I do fear for the people of South Korea and Japan who are without the options I have. They are the ones who will really suffer because of Trump's choice to use military rather than diplomatic means to solve political conflict.

Undeniably there's method to Trump's madness. It will play well at home among those who are deluded enough to believe he's just honouring his election promise to 'make America great again'. But talk about evil empires!

US Military Presence in the Pacific

When I was in King Street Newtown on Saturday afternoon, I saw a man with a Japanese face walking the street carrying a sandwich board promoting peace. Some people averted their gaze because he was just an eccentric elderly man making a futile gesture. I'm pleased that I was able to look him in the eye and nod and smile supportively.

Momentarily I wondered what it would take for him to have conferred upon him the coolness and respect associated with the legendary Arthur Stace. Stace was the reformed alcoholic who walked the streets of Sydney for 35 years spreading his message by chalking the word 'Eternity' on the footpaths in his distinctive script.

Years after his death he became a cultural icon. His message featured in the 2000 Olympics Opening Ceremony and it lit up the Sydney Harbour Bridge as part of New Year celebrations that year.

Eternity Sydney Harbour Bridge NYE 2000

The question is how you lift Australia and the world out of its complacency and start a mass movement for peace. We are now are a crossroads, which I think is evidenced by the feeble and unconvincing nature of Malcolm Turnbull's endorsement of Trump's cruise missile strike on Syria following Assad's acid attack on his own people.

Does Australia really have that much to lose by remaining silent on this (like New Zealand)? Or even adopt a critical posture and advocate directing resources towards diplomacy rather than building the war machine. The possibility is open.

Honest History credits Mark Latham's 'prescience'

One of my aspirations is to be outside the country on Anzac Day. I have never quite made it, though I will go close this year with my departure for a month overseas on 26 April, the day after Anzac Day.

I've always felt that it was an odd celebration. My skepticism was heightened by the politicisation of the Anzac Legend under prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott. I have been frustrated by what I see as the brainwashing of Australian school children, particularly from the time of the Howard Era, when funding was made available to arrest the long-term decline of the Anzac Legend.

The Honest History Book

This was occurring as historians such as Henry Reynolds were revealing more about the 19th century 'Frontier Wars', in which mainly British settlers put down Australian Indigenous resistence, resulting in the deaths of around 20,000. Teaching about the Frontier Wars was - and is - downplayed or even suppressed.

A strong and reputable voice in questioning the Anzac Legend is Honest History, a Canberra-based incorporated association founded in 2013. They use the term 'Anzackery' to argue, among other things, that Anzac Day 'targets children, to the extent that their psychic health is at risk from a sentimental, misleading portrayal of war'. They stress that it is 'possible to be respectful and regretful about death in war, without at the same time sacrificing thought and judgement'.

Among their distinguished list of office-bearers and members is the president - Professor of History at ANU Frank Bongiorno - and the immediate past president David Stanley - professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy and former principal historian at the Australian War Memorial. New South Press has just published their first book - The Honest History Book - edited by David Stephens and Alison Broinowski.

That they are such a reputable and credible group of individuals makes it interesting that they're currently applauding as 'remarkably prescient' that prince of ratbags Mark Latham, the onetime Labor leader who was this week sacked as a commentator from the SkyNews TV channel for making one too many vile slurs against various people including colleagues and a school student.

Mark Latham as Labor leader

There's an emerging consensus that Latham's comments are so anti-social that we should not give him oxygen by talking about him. But Honest History's honesty trumps that, with one of the commentaries currently featured on its home page celebrating Latham's 'prescience' in 'questioning the tired old Left-Right spectrum' in his 2002 Menzies Lecture at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at King's College, London.

Latham shows how the divide between 'insiders and outsiders' is a more reliable guide to recent politics than Left-Right. 'Insiders' refers to inner city educated elites, while the 'Outsiders' are those living in the suburbs and the regions. He argued that the Howard Government was particularly skilled in appealing to outsiders and demonising insiders.

Honest History says: 'The whole speech is worth a read for its analysis of Australian politics in the Howard era and its insights into our own.'

Current political debate in Australia may not need Latham's style of putting down those he doesn't like, but it could do with Honest History's questioning assumed orthodoxies armed with the facts of historical research.

Graceless politics affects us all

One of the many dispiriting but remarkable moments of the Trump presidency occurred when he met German chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House on Friday.

After photographers asked the two to shake hands, Merkel leaned in and quietly asked: 'Do you want to have a handshake?' But Trump continued to hold his hands together between his knees.

Trump and Merkel not shaking hands

In his short time in office, Trump has set a new tone that has replaced civility and grace in politics with a calculated bluntness that diminishes the propensity for bridge building between political adversaries. This has taken root elsewhere.

When we watched it together, a friend remarked on incoming WA Premier Mark McGowan's acceptance speech on election night just over a week ago. Instead of congratulating his defeated rival Colin Barnett for a 'hard fought campaign', he paid tribute to the people for rejecting the 'stupidity and ignorance' that, in his view, Barnett represented.

Barnett's campaign was not hard fought, but that's not the point. You find something positive to say about your rival because civility in politics contributes to making the world a better place to live for all concerned.

I think this new standard of division has also affected my own attitude.

Recently I told this friend - slightly tongue in cheek - that I liked to be 'politically correct'. It was a stupid thing to say, but I said it instinctively, to distinguish myself from the likes of Trump and The Australian newspaper, who often use that term to put down their rivals.

In characterising myself as 'politically correct', I wasn't thinking of my support for positive values such as social inclusion, which are ridiculed every time this pejorative term is used. I was playing the nasty game of political division that is more interested in point scoring and crushing rivals than in action to improve people's lives.

My friend said that he wished there could be more 'civil conversation'. He was speaking in the context of our discussion of the Bill Leak cartoon satirising negligent indigenous fathers. I continued to be outraged by the cartoon, while he hoped that its publication and notoriety might lead to productive discussion.

I can see that he might be the one to shake hands with Bill Leak while I would look the other way.